From Fonzie to Friends

Bruce Springsteen’s praise of Chuck Berry, who died on Friday, as “rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock 'n' roll writer who ever lived” prompts pause for members of several generations. Other iconic musicians have called Berry the founder of the genre. An earliest memory that rock-and-roll even existed was listening to Bill Haley and the Comets’ Rock Around the Clock at the beginning of Happy Days, a favorite childhood television show.

Berry’s death returned me to thoughts of that sitcom that acclaimed the early days of the genre he helped to birth. Fonzie inspired my boyhood buddies and me to regularly build a ramp that sped us up so we could launch our bikes over multiple garbage cans, all in an effort to model Henry Winkler’s Arthur Fonzarelli character, the cool guy with a black leather jacket on a motorcycle.

Although I preferred Ron Howard’s Richie Cunningham role, I admired the honesty Fonzie would show whenever Mrs. Cunningham would invite him to soften his tough-guy edge. The way she would singingly say his name to appeal to his true self seemed to melt him a bit. Fonzie needed some melting. No one can go through life that cool.

In the book, Engaging a New Generation: A Vision for Reaching Catholic Teens, author and youth minister Frank Mercadante laments “spiritual Fonzies,” people who seem to possess a quality that suggests they “have it all together” in terms of holiness. He hopes that our culture and church have moved away from the Fonzie perspective because “spiritual coolness” distances young people from choosing Catholic role models. Mercadante finds that millennials and those after them appreciate authenticity, how people can reveal vulnerability and share the challenges they have bringing the Gospel to life at work, in relationships, and at prayer.

Perhaps Fonzie’s popularity was eclipsed in subsequent generations by the characters on Friends and Sienfeld, sitcoms that illustrated the attractiveness and delight of very imperfect personalities. Maybe young viewers identified more with awkwardness and missteps, preferring their accompanying warmth to the distancing chill of cool.

As we seek to share our faith with our youth and young adults, let’s be sure to present our true self and honest efforts at living Jesus, which is always the best way to be who we are and be that well, as St. Francis de Sales famously advises us.